“Well of course we fought it,” Hunter said, raising his voice to be heard in the crowded restaurant patio. “Who the hell wants their kid staring off into space seeing God-knows-what all the time, instead of learning how to live in the real world?”
“Same way our parents fought like hell to limit our tablet use, or not let us have them at all,” added Tucker. “Same way their parents tried to keep them from sitting in front of the television like zombies all day long. A losing battle, in all three cases. Because you can’t fight technology.”
Amanita wished her food would come. Her parents’ friends always had the same brunch conversations.
“And we turned out alright, didn’t we?”
“So, yeah, when Bruce started first grade we got him ocular implants. All of us get them, now. Right? It’s not even a question, you have to have them. Once upon a time they had the same conversation about cell phones—when do you get them for a kid?”
“Totally worth it, to not have to worry about him scampering off and getting kidnapped, murdered, infected with one of those—”
“And to not have to entertain him every second of the day.”
First Hunter and then Tucker tousled their son’s hair, and little Bruce smiled—from simple physical reflex. For he was far away from that Brooklyn restaurant, seeing his two dads and all their friends as gray outlines against the dazzling backdrop of augmented reality.
“What plane are you on?” asked Amanita, who was twelve to Bruce’s seven, and found the boy only moderately less boring than the adults.
Bruce extended one wrist, and Amanita tapped hers to his.
And hell unfurled around her.
“Jesus Christ,” she said, and she had to fight to keep her voice low enough that the grown-ups wouldn’t register any alarm.
She shivered, looking around. She’d never seen an AR plane like this before. Probably it wasn’t even one plane, but several stacked on top of each other—she knew it was possible, you could buy or burn them like that, but most people didn’t because the vectors were always bumping up against each other, and anyway the physics never quite aligned. Add moon-gravity space war to bottom-of-the-sea adventure and you got a whole muddle of confusing rules and glitchy chaos.
This one was wrong, all wrong, but—it worked. The mechanics tracked.
A city on the edge of the sea. Or: a city being eaten by the sea. Ocean waves lapped at their feet. Dark alleys on all sides. Wet brick, billowing steam, cardboard boxes where eyes glittered. A little girl with legs too long squatted on a fire escape, singing to a doll or struggling child. Jellyfish floated through the air. Vultures and feral Mickey Mice gnawed at a cow carcass. A werewolf was graffitied onto one wall, something out of an old woodcut. While she watched, it turned its spray-painted head and grinned, beads of saliva standing out on its jagged spray-painted teeth, and then it hurried off along the wall. Dark shadows fell on them, from massive things circling in the sky. Also—there were no other players, beside the two of them. In overcrowded New York City there were always other players, bright spots in buildings above or beacons from blocks away. Everyone in sight was grayed out, inaccessible.
They can’t help me if something happens, she thought, but it was an absurd thought. Only babies forgot that AR planes weren’t real, couldn’t hurt you, could be exited at any moment with a blink.
“What the hell is this? How did you find this?”
Bruce shrugged. He presented as a grown man, and a massive one. Seven feet tall, easy—face and muscled body cobbled together from hundreds of movie stars and cartoon characters, wearing an intricate, inexplicable outfit—a superhero suit designed by someone who spent days adjusting every possible setting. Patches of bright color, complete asymmetry, spiked in places and scaled in others—it hurt her eyes to look at it too long. A box sat on the table before him, squarely on top of his untouched brunch. He opened it and pulled out two shivering little creatures—she glimpsed a crawling chaos of organisms writhing inside before he shut the lid.
Had Bruce made it himself? Plane creation had always been too complicated for her, she’d tried once on her brother’s Sonic Speedway Maker and rage-quit after twenty clumsy minutes.
But data—data was her thing. Games were for kids, who preferred to control worlds that weren’t real, but data was for grown-ups who wanted to change the real one. So she queried the plane’s metalayer, and had to squint at the blinding white wall of text that scrolled past.
AI-generated. Took her a while to figure it out, the authorships from version to version were so intricate, but this had definitely been created by a piece of software. And not just any AI—one of the new ones churned out by an iterative software modeling farm. AI written by AI. Spooky, elaborate, with millions of lines of code no human could parse.
She knew about this. Shady companies who couldn’t afford to hire actual development or creative teams would buy a bargain-basement generative AI to churn out thousands of AR worlds, then sift through them for the ones that almost actually worked. Her brother had found one, once. It was like being lost in a maniac’s nightmare memory of a traumatic trip to Disney World.
But this—this wasn’t one of the ones that ‘worked.’ It was a cast-off, had to be. The kind that got stolen in a data breach, dumped on a digital scrap heap for trawlers to pick through. The kind that could seriously fuck a kid up.
The wriggling creatures from Bruce’s box were growing. She saw now that they were people, fully-formed sexless naked miniatures. Fist-sized now.
Bruce picked one up, ripped it in half, flung the pieces onto the ground the way you might if you were feeding pigeons. Except whatever he was feeding, it was way worse than pigeons.
“Bruce, no!” she screamed.
Amanita blinked away the plane, and shivered at the stark safety of the Bushwick restaurant. Had she screamed in real life, and they’d all ignored her? Or had the rules of Bruce’s plane prevented her scream from reaching them? Either option was upsetting.
They were still stuck on the same topic. Someone asked, “You don’t worry that he might stumble into something…inappropriate?”
“We have the parental controls on. They’re very effective these days.”
She knew it was true. No sex or violence or profanity would penetrate the shield they’d built around little Bruce. There hadn’t been any blood when he tore that homunculus in half. But it had certainly screamed. And she’d also seen old Disney movies. Even with a G-rating you could be disturbing as hell. Pinocchio still gave her nightmares, years after she’d seen it. What might happen to Bruce, in there?
The food had come. She took a bite of her omelet, then a forbidden sip of her mother’s coffee. Mom was too busy talking to that friend from college to see.
Her fork felt so safe in her hand. So solid. The smell of hash browns was healing, real. She should stay. Bruce would be fine.
Wherever he was, she knew he hadn’t let his dads in. They’d have booted him out and booked two appointments immediately—one with the oculist, to remove his implants, and one with a child psychologist, to assess and erase whatever unspeakable damage had been done. Was still being done.
“Tucker, Hunter, I heard that was in your building—that thing where that guy set his whole apartment on fire, killed himself and his wife and—”
Bruce could be in real danger, but the grown-ups had moved on to the next topic of conversation. It sucked, having to protect adults from the horrors of reality.
She tapped back in.
He was standing now, watching the horizon.
“Bruce?” she said, feeling flimsy and insubstantial—a lo-res, uncustomized version of herself. It wasn’t the black-and-white All-About-Eve Bette Davis that was her default presentation. Bette had been overwritten, at least here. Something was seriously off on this plane. “What…what are you looking for?”
“She’s coming,” he said, smiling horribly.
Amanita looked down, at the still-growing homunculus corpses. Smelled the stink they gave off.
“What did you feed?”
“Tyrannosaurus hex,” he said, and she shivered at the name without knowing why. Something about the way he said it? Hungry and horrified all at once.
The name rang a bell—a myth, a monster from a story. She searched, and sure enough:
Tyrannosaurus hexadecimal, a digital de-extinction, product of a Russian troll farm or black-ops Pentagon cyberterror legion. Weaponized intrusion software given reptilian form. Oiled glistening flesh; eyes of fractal fire. A calling card, at first—an insanely detailed GIF to leave behind at the scene of data breaches and other mischief. But growing more sophisticated with time, marching forward on the ever-advancing cutting edge of internet malevolence.
“Bruce,” she said. “We have to go.”
“She’s almost here.”
Now there were ripples forming in her mother’s cup of coffee. A distant thudding, like bombs going off, each one a little closer. The weirdness of Bruce’s plane-world receded as whatever it was approached. The jellyfish and Mickey Mice scurried into the shadows. Banal Sunday Bushwick bloomed around them.
“Bruce, you don’t know what she—”
“Of course I do,” he said, as the monster turned the corner of Melrose and Knickerbocker. “She always comes when I call her.”
Tyrannosaurus hex stood three stories tall. As she moved, her massive bulk rewrote the rules of reality in this plane—her feet crushed cars; her tail-swings sent pedestrians sailing through the air. Amanita knew it wasn’t real, knew that as soon as she blinked herself out she’d see the dog-walkers unharmed and the cars intact. But she’d never seen software sophisticated enough to shatter the representation of the real so swiftly and effortlessly, and that was terrifying enough.
“She’s my friend,” he said.
She arrived. Lowered her head to look them in the eye. Amanita smelled grease, meat, gasoline, maggots. She was a living machine, giving off heat like a car engine on a hot day. As with Bruce’s suit, looking too closely at the texture of her flesh made Amanita’s head swim, and stomach lurch. The resolution was almost infinitely dense, pebbled flesh and engorged capillaries and streams of sweat where bacteria pooled (but that’s wrong, she thought, dinosaurs are birds and birds don’t sweat, but she knew it didn’t matter, tyrannosaurus hex obeyed no laws but her own).
“Do you want to see something really cool?” he asked.
“No,” she said, because there was that horrible hunger in his voice again.
Tyrannosaurus hex stood to her full height, and turned to regard an apartment building. All glass and steel, the kind of glistening new building where her family lived. Where Bruce’s family lived, like all the new arrivals on this block, in this borough.
The monster leaned forward, opened her horrible mouth. Fangs like jagged stone knives dripped toxic saliva. The beast bit into the building on the third floor, and the walls of that apartment seemed to fall away. Amanita saw vintage concert posters, a floor full of dirty clothes, a greyed-out bearded hipster at his laptop.
This too wasn’t real. The walls were still there. She was seeing the occupant’s scanned interior skin. But how could the monster have hacked into that? How could it see through walls?
Again it leaned forward. Again it opened its mouth. But this time, it clamped those nightmare fangs around the man where he sat.
And the greyed-out man came into full color. Somehow, she had pulled him into their AR plane.
Gently, gently, tyrannosaurus hex released him.
“What the fuck?” the man said—and saw what stood six feet in front of him. And screamed.
“Don’t,” Amanita said, and for the first time Bruce turned and looked her in the eye.
She’d heard stories. AR urban legends. About how even the fictional could fuck you up. About Chinese hackers who could get hold of your ocular implants, force you to see the most eyeball-searing atrocities imaginable. About hellspawn AIs that trawled through your whole digital footprint to figure out exactly what would hurt you the most. Show you your mom being tortured, your children eviscerated. How they could take control of jawbone conduction implants to fill your ears with the screams of dying loved ones, with the most obscene and cruel whispers from the people whose betrayal would hurt you the most. How even if you weren’t reduced to a gibbering mess and could somehow get to the hospital and communicate to the doctors what was happening and have the hacked implants removed, you’d have been trapped in hell for hours already. And you’d never be the same.
“Don’t,” she said again, and Bruce giggled. She realized that in all their innumerable college-buddy-reunion brunches, she’d never heard him laugh before.
Tyrannosaurus hex took the man in its jaws. And that monster head jerked, like a dog trying to break a squirrel’s neck.
Amanita scream-blinked herself back to brunch.
The adults fell silent. They’d heard her, this time. For a full five seconds they stared, waiting for her to explain herself.
Her hash browns were still there. Safe, hot, oversalted, delicious. Her mother’s coffee. Her mother, who squeezed her hand gently and turned away to resume her invective against that one show everyone loved.
Apparently none of them could hear it. Or they heard it and ignored it, the way you do in the city.
High overhead, someone was screaming.
(Editors’ Note: “Tyrannosaurus Hex” is read by Joy Piedmont on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 38A.)
© 2021 Sam J. Miller